Graduate school prepares students for a range of intellectual and professional endeavors. Unfortunately, responding to scholarly insults and academic shade-throwing isn’t one of them.
But for scholars in the fields of race and ethnic studies—including those who work outside the ivory tower—dealing with snide questions, nasty comments, and occasional name-calling is just part of the job description. Over the years, these academics have repeatedly told me that their work is uniquely misunderstood and dismissed by students, fellow faculty, and the general public. The election of Barack Obama, some say, has only made it tougher to defend ethnic studies: Amid declarations of a “post-racial” America, how do you explain why you study and write about racism?
Nearly every race-studies scholar—white professors included—can identify a phrase that drives them uniquely nuts: “Stop playing the race card.” “What about white studies?” “Racism is no longer an issue. Why are you beating a dead horse?”
Some writers and scholars say they feel inclined to track haters down to deliver custom curse-outs. Others offer a simple “Kanye shrug” and keep moving. Still others say they feel compelled to offer thoughtful responses because they view insensitive questions as teachable moments. Those who take this tactic say they are willing to hand out maps, but they refuse to be racial tour guides.
“I promise you, if I had a quarter for every time some fool said, ‘Why do you make everything about race?’ in emails or comments or letters to various publications I’ve written for in my 20-year career, several dorms full of college students would have laundry money for a year,” says Denene Millner, an Atlanta-based journalist and editor whose work explores the intersections of parenting and race in America.
So is there a right way to answer this kind of skepticism? I asked almost two-dozen writers and scholars to share the questions or comments they hear most often, and to offer some advice on how graduate students and junior faculty in race and ethnic studies can respond. Here are some highlights:
“I’m so tired of talking about race.”
Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr.
Associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies and performing arts
Washington University in St. Louis
The complaint I receive often, while teaching at a private, elite institution, where many students think they are highly liberal: "I am so tired of thinking, talking, writing about race." Some go so far as to say they’re experiencing "race fatigue."
Often my response is flippant: "Imagine how tiring it is being tired of the racist bigotry, prejudice, and unjust treatment within and outside the classroom."
This is also my opportunity to have my largely white classroom deal with its privilege, as well as to think about the material impacts of racism in the everyday lives of people of color, rather than race as an abstract idea. I think there is a real valuable lesson in confronting students about their "fatigue" as an indicator of white racist privilege, as well as a cultural trend to discount any racial grievance. Of course, this disadvantages and dismisses those who suffer from racist systems, in that it invalidates all discussions of race in order to guarantee white comfort and particular claims to impunity.
To a young junior scholar, I would say: Do not appear defensive. Defer to the student and ask him or her to be self-reflective. Instead of simply saying that race fatigue comes from a privileged space, I would ask a student: “At what moments are you most fatigued?” “What are the repercussions of your fatigue?” “Does that make race and racism a subject not to be engaged?” This approach pushes the student toward a more critical examination of his or her own position, rather than letting the student assume you operate from a biased position.
The other option may be to perform standpoint theory: “Might you imagine what repeated offenses by neighborhood police officers would do to your understanding of ‘home?’” “Can you imagine always having to take orders, recommendations, and criticism from folks who look different than you while being told that your difference doesn’t matter?”
“Why are you always talking about black people and diversity?”
Associate professor of journalism
University of Georgia
Please note: This question has a few common variations: “Talking about” may be substituted with “writing about,” if you, dear scholar, have been so brazen as to articulate your views in print. Also, the term “people of color” may be used instead of “black people” if, and only if, both of the following conditions are met: (a) You are, yourself, visibly a person of color who does not, to the untrained eye, appear to be black; and (b) your questioner prides himself on being more enlightened than most of his colleagues and more aware of our multiculti world.
There are several appropriate answers for this question and its variations. Feel free to choose from the answers below as the situation warrants.
1. “When was the last time you talked or wrote about black people, people of color, or diversity and inclusion?”
2. “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
3. “Because I actually love and respect people of color and believe that our stories should be given vociferous voice.” Or, to use the vernacular: “Say it loud—I’m black and I’m proud!”
4. “Because I genuinely find people of color more interesting than white people.”
“You’re lucky black people let you teach what you do!”
Professor of history and African-American studies
When I’ve told white people that I teach in a black-studies department, they’ve told me, “You’re lucky black people let you teach what you do.” Or they’ve said, “Black people are the biggest racists around. I thought they would eat up a white boy like you.”
They think that no white person, no matter who they are, would be accorded that opportunity. The fact that many black people might be fair and open-minded never crosses their minds.
If you are a white scholar who teaches in an ethnic studies department or program, best be prepared for the greatest skepticism and resistance to come from whites who think the whole field is illegitimate and preaches hatred of white people and contempt for American traditions. A lot of whites in the U.S. now think they are the major victims of racism and that black people play the race card against them to gain unfair advantages.
You need to be ready for this and have some quick retorts to statements like these.
If they say, “Black people hate white people,” respond by saying: “No, my colleagues love white people! It’s white racists they have problems with, which at this point is about half of the country!”
If somebody tells you that black people are the biggest racists, respond by saying: “To me, that’s a case of the pot calling the kettle white!”
“You’re the real racist!”
Kirsten West Savali
News One, Huffington Post, AlterNet, The Root
If you write about race and racism, be prepared for people to call you a racist and say that you hate white people. And be prepared for them to not understand that you are studying systemic racism and it’s not about individual prejudice.
That is the complicated line that black scholars, writers, journalists and activists must walk. That death-defying feat of balancing facts with fire, rationale with rage—and being unapologetic about doing so. There will be those who call you racist, who expect that your desire to further your education means you’ve accepted tokenism as progress. There will be those who ask you to consider your personal achievements as collective uplift. Know when this happens that these critics are running from the truth because they benefit from the post-racial lie.
Do not allow white critics to assert their privilege and demand that you shift the conversation to smoother terrain, one which allows them to ignore their own complicity in the systems that continue to oppress people of color. Allow no one tell you that your work is not important. Write, research, and teach with revolutionary rage, as if the very future of this country depends on it. Because it does.
The next time someone tells you that you are the racist or questions why you talk about black people and diversity, turn to them and say: “Let me ask you: Why shouldn’t I be talking about black people and diversity? I’m sure your answer will tell you all you need to know about why I do my work.”
“We were hoping for a black candidate.”
Matthew Pratt Guterl
Professor of Africana studies and American studies
I used to get a lot of awkward questions. “Why are you writing a book about that?” Or: "We were hoping for a black candidate; what made you apply?" Even worse, and usually over dinner or in a quiet room: "I hear what you are saying, but aren't black people really better at basketball?"
I suppose there is a lesson to be learned and taught in each moment, but sometimes—often, in these cases—it just seems like there is too much to teach and too little chance of it being learned, especially when there is a bigger audience in the room, or when you have just ten minutes to talk. You do what you can—and what you can do is perform social triage.
But then, there are deeper lessons here. My "favorite" such moment involves my visit to the inner parlor of a famous scholar in my field, who—having only read my CV—greeted me warmly, gave me a soul handshake, and then, after assessing the qualities of that handshake, looked me up and down, and asked me: "Are you black or are you white?" I have no clue what he saw (or sensed), but I do know that a part of what he wanted was a simple clarification of my relationship to African-American studies, to ethnic studies, and to the broader interests of critical racial and ethnic studies. We fumbled through the first few minutes of that conversation before parting awkwardly, and I've spent the last decade-and-a-half trying to provide the clarity he desired on my own carefully chosen terms.
I wouldn't characterize his question as "dumb." Or, really, any of the others. But what do you do if someone asks you a question like that?
If you're at a conference, or addressing a larger audience, I don't think you can just leave that sort of thing hanging out there unaddressed. Neither can you just slam the lid down. No matter who you are and how you define yourself, you'll be judged in some fashion. So be polite, be direct, and take control of the conversation. If your questioner persists, or ask a follow-up (and this will happen), agree to disagree, ask for time afterwards, and move on. Avoid the temptation, I say, to shame the questioner.
In private, you have more room to move. And more room to assertively confront these questions. I've been asked the question about blackness and basketball, for example, more times than I can remember, but always in private. The result is usually a long conversation about political economy, basketball vs. baseball, urban and suburban space, the work of representations, farm systems and schooling, and so on.
Basically, there is no real "off" time. Every single context—every dinner party, every casual conversation—can be transformed by a single dumb question. So be ready. You can be more partisan in private. Prepare to make fewer friends. And to make better friends whenever you do make them.
There is a final category of questions here: Sometimes, I get questions that are meant to test my supposed commitment to whiteness, or even to white supremacy. I wouldn't call these "dumb;" I'd call them dangerous. Whenever I get them, I'm reminded that the person who asks me something silly about blackness and basketball, or who wonders, almost innocently, why I write what I write, isn't the worst. They, at least, seem to be asking questions because they don't have hard answers. The worst ones are still out there. And they don't go to the MLA or ASA to ask questions.
“You’re so smart and articulate.”
Camille Zubrinsky Charles
Professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education
University of Pennsylvania
I am surprised at how often I still get this from white people in professional settings. I mean, I’m generally a modest person, but I have a Ph.D.! I’m supposed to be smart and articulate!
It starts early, and even though no one explains it, your gut tells you it isn’t really a compliment. Something about the intonation and facial expression of the white person saying it is offensive, off-putting, and creepy. At best it’s a backhanded compliment; worst-case, it’s an expression of shock that I don’t fit the stereotypes of black people as unintelligent and inarticulate. So it’s kind of like: “Wow, you’re so smart and well-spoken … not at all like those other black people!” All smiles and glee. Yay, me. Not.
Now, I like to respond with a bit of sarcasm. When I’m approached after a talk or a class lecture and someone sings my praises with that faint hint of surprise that I’m “so smart and articulate,” I remind him or her that these traits are “part of the job description.” The security of tenure and rank brought with them the audacity to smile and say, “you seem so surprised!”
Always with a smile on my face, making direct eye contact, projecting confidence. Of course I’m smart. Of course I’m articulate. That you expected something so different—no, something antithetical—to that really isn’t about me.
Yes, I am smart. Yes, I am articulate. My understanding of the “origins” of white peoples’ shock and their well-intentioned “compliments” keeps me from cussing people out, allows me to be the bigger person, to believe that they really do mean well. But that shit still stings.
I’ve worked long and hard to get to where I am; my continued presence here is activism. In that revolutionary spirit, I see it as both my right and my obligation to make use of the teachable moment, to share in this small way “how it feels to be a problem.” Because we are not post-racial, and that damn color line is some serious shit.
So I’ll be damned if I thank you. In fact, you need to feel my pain. For stating the obvious, I say (politely, metaphorically, and with a smile), “Wow, imagine that!!”
“I can’t do anything with a degree in African-American or ethnic studies.”
Assistant professor of African-American studies
California State University at Fullerton
When I came to Cal State Fullerton, I was amazed that in most of my African-American studies courses, there were few (if any) black students. The dynamic was radically different from my own experience 20 years ago as a student at San Francisco State University, which was one of the first campus to have blacks studies. During that time, students of color— having come from public schools that taught us little about ourselves—wanted to know about our history. I couldn’t figure out what was going on not only at Fullerton, but at other urban campuses I’d taught at, where students of color resisted taking ethnic-studies courses.
During my first semester at Cal State Fullerton, black faculty members held a panel in our African-American Cultural Center to introduce ourselves. One professor asked the students why they were not taking our classes. Silence filled the room; students appeared uncomfortable at the question. Finally, one student responded: “I’m a health-education major, and I didn’t major in ethnic studies because I didn’t know what career could come from it.” We listened, nodding our heads. This answer made sense. Most Cal State students are working-class; they need an end result from their college investment—something tangible, a job.
First-time faculty teaching in ethnic-studies departments may come across students of color who don’t want to major in ethnic studies for this reason. My advice to new faculty addressing this issue is to provide clear examples to students of how ethnic studies can enhance their career options. For example, a black student majoring in business with a dual degree in African-American studies will be equipped to argue that black consumers have specific needs that can be served by whatever company he or she works for. Similar arguments can be made for students of color majoring in nursing, computer science, film studies—that being trained in ethnic studies makes them competitive in the job market.
Invite students that graduated from the major back to speak about what they have done with their degrees. For example, this year at Cal State Fullerton, we graduated eight African-American majors. We definitely plan to invite some back to discuss how their degrees helped them.
“Ethnic studies isn’t a real discipline.”
David J. Leonard
Associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies
Washington State University at Pullman
In one of my first job interviews, I was asked: "You say you are interdisciplinary, but what would you say if I said you were undisciplined?" Putting aside the fact that wasn't much of a question, it was one of many instances where my interdisciplinary background as a scholar of ethnic studies was both devalued and disparaged.
People are going to talk this kind of mess. While this says something about them, it still hurts. I get it. And it is going to take on many forms, from colleagues scoffing at the perceived lack of rigor in your field to comment sections littered with phrases like "I can't believe they even have that department."
Rational responses are unlikely to be effective. Sure, you could highlight your citation index or send copies of your expanding CV. You could even drop some theory on them or stat-check them into submission. But why? I would tell you to ignore these academic dinosaurs.
Flat-earthers who deny the intellectual value of ethnic studies are commonplace inside and outside of the academy. The contempt and disparagement gets tiresome. But remember: Your work matters. We didn’t enter into this field for glory or approval from those who parrot narratives of colorblindness; we don’t teach, research and write for the David Horowitzes of the world, or those who identify "real disciplines" through a Mad Men-era perspective.
Try not to care if you are labeled a radical or activist looking to challenge racism. That's what we do! Embrace it and keep moving. The next time somebody tells you that ethnic studies isn’t a real discipline, turn to them and say: “Real or not, it’s here to stay. So why don’t you take your tweed jacket to the cleaners? I have work to do.”
“How is black sexuality any different from white sexuality?”
Marlon M. Bailey
Associate professor of gender studies and American studies
Indiana University at Bloomington
A woman came up to me at a conference and asked, “Why do you study black sexuality? Why focus on black sexuality as opposed to white sexuality?”
I looked at her and said, “I’m not interested in white people’s sexuality. I’m interested in doing scholarship that’s directly relevant to black life.” She gave me a perplexed look and then said, “Oh, OK. I guess that’s fair.”
I get really tired of the notion that research on black people is not as valuable or universal as the study of white people. Research on all people should be valued. Just as black people are very complicated and complex, so is our gender and sexuality. As researchers and scholars, we should always be interested in producing scholarship and research that emerges from and is relevant to people’s everyday lives.
Funders will say that the study of black sexuality is too particular. But black people’s gender and sexual identities and experiences are influenced by our race, our ethnic identities, and our experiences. We can’t talk about what it means to be a black heterosexual person or a black gay or lesbian person without examining it through the “black” part, which means that we have a history in this country of race, racism, and white supremacy being practiced on our bodies through sexual and gender violence.
If somebody asks you why you study black sexuality, tell him or her that it’s important for black scholars to take control of our sexuality and study it, because when other people do, it tends to be inaccurate and pathologizes blackness.
You could also tell people that you’re not interested in the obvious. You’re interested in uncovering what’s invisible. For instance, LGBT people are not visible. In most scholarship and in popular culture, almost all the gay people are white. And all the black people are straight. You could ask people to think about their own experiences and what they see. Turn the question back on them: “What representations of black sexuality do you see? What do you know about black sexuality?”
“Do you have a Ph.D.?”
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
CEO and president
National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity
I’ve been asked if I have a Ph.D. so many times that it’s not a shock any more. Nor is it a surprise when I say “yes,” and someone exclaims, “You have a Ph.D.?”
I don’t get offended anymore. To me it’s a classic moment that signifies there’s some kind of synaptic misfire. People tend to have an image of a professor in their minds. Then they look at me, and it just does not add up. So it causes a brain fart and they ask this question to clarify what they’re seeing.
An exchange like this tells me that I don’t have the benefit of the doubt. When this happens, it’s a natural response to have your insecurity button pushed. When you see students start asking these clarifying questions of new faculty, the professors’ response is to over prepare and over function on their teaching to prove that they belong in the classroom. They’re doing that not just for themselves as individuals, but for people who look like them. What ends up happening, especially for new tenure-track faculty, is that this takes time away from research and writing.
Many students are not used to walking into a classroom and seeing a person of color in a position of intellectual authority, so they interact with you as a peer instead. They feel comfortable calling you by your first name even when they call others “Dr. So-and-So.” They feel comfortable openly questioning a grade and even going over your head to get a grade dispute resolved.
It’s unfortunate, but you can’t get triggered by any of this. You need to be clear that this is not about you. It’s about their limited experience. They’re going to ask a lot of questions. You cannot let these kinds of questions change how you function in the classroom. The mistake people make is getting frustrated and angry when they get these questions.
I have playful responses. For example, I’ve had moments when I’ve been sitting in my office with the door open. I’m alone. There’s no one else in the room with me. And my name is on the door. Students will look at me and say, “Excuse me, I’m looking for Prof. Rockquemore. Are you her assistant?” They’ve concluded that I’m not Prof. Rockquemore.
So I’ll stay silent, get up, look inside the closet and under the desk. It’s a non-reactive way of communicating and it opens the conversation. Eventually the person realizes: “This is some dumb shit.” These little kinds of things happen all the time, across different areas of the campus. I’m going to be mad a lot if I get triggered all the time. Many times I want to give others the benefit of the doubt because there’ll be a lot of teachable moments.
I’d also like to encourage you to make an investment in a punching bag. You’ve got to get out of your body the natural frustration that comes every time you have to explain who you are and every time someone sends the message that you don’t belong in this community. That hurts. It’s totally normal to get mad about it, so you have to get the hurt out of your body. Racism exists and you have to succeed anyway. And you have to be healthy.